Playwright Athol Fugard's Master Harold Is the Latest Diamond Imported from South Africa

updated 08/09/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/09/1982 01:00AM

The South African skies are as soggy as a used tea bag. But inside the St. George's Park Tearoom in the coastal town of Port Elizabeth, spirits are high as two black waiters practice ballroom dance steps. The white owner's son cheers them on. Gradually, as the winds outside grow stronger, the boy lashes out at his two black buddies. "Call me Master Harold," he commands, irrevocably poisoning their interracial friendship.

"I was that little boy in that tearoom," admits Athol Fugard of a shattering experience he has since forged into art. The South African playwright also remembers painfully that when he was 10, he spit at a black man. "I was deeply ashamed of it seconds after I did it," he says. But now, at age 50, Fugard has become an eloquent South African voice speaking out against apartheid in plays like The Blood Knot, A Lesson From Aloes and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead.

The latest, Master Harold...and the Boys, Fugard's semiautobiographical tale of growing up in his parents' Port Elizabeth tearoom, is now awing both audiences and critics on Broadway. Proclaimed Frank Rich of the New York Times: "There may be two or three living playwrights in the world who can write as well as Athol Fugard, but I'm not sure that any of them has written a recent play that can match Master Harold...and the Boys."

Back home in South Africa, the Afrikaner government only grudgingly permits Fugard's work, largely because he has gained a worldwide reputation. But back in the '60s, after The Blood Knot opened in the U.S. starring James Earl Jones, Fugard's passport was taken away for four years. Even today he thinks his telephone may be tapped and his mail screened. Although his plays are now frequently produced, Fugard has ample reason for concern: A neighbor of his says that she was asked by security police to "keep an eye on him." Generally, however, Athol believes that "old liberals like myself" are considered little threat to the government. "With bombs going off, with so-called terrorists or freedom fighters around," says Fugard, "the likes of me are tolerated."

This realistic, soft-spoken "old liberal" also calls himself a "cultural bastard." His father, a jazz musician who lost a leg due to a childhood accident, was of Irish descent. His mother, who ran the now celebrated tearoom, was of Dutch ancestry. Young Athol hung around with the black waiters at the tearoom until he enrolled at the University of Cape Town in 1950. There he began taking a few philosophy courses, but dropped out during his third year and signed on as a seaman on a tramp steamer.

After two years at sea ("I've retained a sailor's psychology to this day," he says), Fugard got a job as a reporter with the South African Broadcasting Corporation in Cape Town. A young writer and actress, Sheila Meiring, introduced him to the world of the theater. The two soon married and settled down to writing careers.

Sheila, a prizewinning poet and novelist, works in one side of their small bungalow, which borders a spectacular, 50-mile stretch of sand, surf and coastal bush outside Port Elizabeth. Athol appropriates the other half. In the afternoons he sometimes breaks for a bit of fishing, gardening, bird-watching or simply lolling about under a white syringa tree that he planted himself. Tamping down the tobacco (a local mixture called Magaliesburg Horseshoe) in his briar pipe, sipping cheap, sweet white Cape wine from a tinfoil container, he regularly reads aloud his fan mail to his favorite audience: a kingfisher, a mole and three dogs.

Soon Fugard will direct his actress daughter Lisa, 21, in one of his own plays, People Are Living There, at a Cape Town theater. He is also collecting royalties from Tsotsi (South African slang for "roughneck"), a novel he wrote when he was 29 but that was published in the U.S. only last year.

Of all his works, he is most attached to Master Harold. "A writer is to a certain extent part of the conscience of a society," muses Fugard. "That play exposed my potential at that time—that is, every man's potential at any time—to turn into a nasty, prejudiced person."

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